Redoing a Cover, Rebranding a Series: An Interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan

Book CoverHank Phillippi Ryan is an award-winning television reporter, award-winning author, and can wear red lipstick without getting any on her teeth and that’s where you really need to be jealous (I totally am). She writes the Charlotte McNally series, a mystery series featuring an older female reporter who navigates single-hood and dangerous mysteries based on questions like, “What if the tip on the story of a lifetime ended up in your junk mail, and your life was in danger because of it?” (That’d be “Prime Time,” the first book in the series). Ryan’s heroine is one of those women who wears skirts because her ballsy nature won’t fit in pants. And- as I found out yesterday, her latest book, Air Time, was just nominated for the AGATHA for Best Mystery of 2009. Congrats, Hank!

When the series first released, they had very romance-angled covers. With the new release, the covers are very different. I was very curious about that process and how it came about. Awhile back – like a LONG time ago – I asked her some really nebby questions about the rebranding and redesign of the covers for her Charlotte “Charlie” McNally series as they were recast from “mystery/women’s fiction” to mystery with Really Big Mystery Names on the covers. Then a great inbox disaster happened and I found the interview – my deep and bumbly apologies to Hank and to Charlotte. The nice thing is, the books are still coming out – three more are due from Mira.

How was the decision made to rebrand your books, and how do you like the new covers vs. the old ones?

Hank:  So, imagine a big conference room. Big shiny mahogany table, puffy ergonomic chairs, fragrant coffee and tempting little muffins. Around the table, some editors with expensive pens, chic representatives from marketing and sales,  and, all in black with severe chestnut hair and tortoise-shell glasses, the new head of the art department.

I’m all rested,  having been picked up at my hotel by a limo service, and am offered a chair near the head of the table. I look up—and arrayed on big easels, I see several glossy prototypes of the new covers of the Charlotte McNally mysteries. 

NOT EVEN CLOSE.

Here’s the real scoop. PRIME TIME (the first in the Charlotte McNally series) first came out with a slinky romance-y (and kind of glam) cover. It was part of Harlequin’s wonderful but ill-fated NEXT series, which was designed as a women’s fiction imprint.  I always thought of PRIME TIME as a mystery. I conceived it as a mystery, plotted it as a mystery, wrote it as a mystery,  And I thought it fit just fine in NEXT, since it features a chic and cool but realistic 46-year old investigative TV reporter. A women’s fiction mystery. Fine.

The second in the series, FACE TIME, came out with a different-looking but still terrific cover—and it was branded, to my delight,  “A Charlotte McNally Mystery.”  So I thought—great, it’s being marketed and offered as a mystery.  And that made sense. 

Face TimeFace Time

Then the books started getting a lot of attention from the romance world. Fantastic! Because, indeed, there are romantic elements n the books. (Someone asked me if I could write a romance without the mystery—and I asked her: What would the characters DO? And then she asked if I could write a mystery without romance—and my answer was: Not if the characters behave like real people. You know?)

In my new-to-publishing brain, I thought it didn’t matter. I loved the books, and didn’t really care what anyone called them.

Then NEXT was closed.  And, for what turned out to be a brief amount of time, the future of the Charlotte McNally Mysteries was up in the air—even though Harlequin had purchased two more of them, and the third, AIR TIME, was finished.

Continuing the saga! PRIME TIME was nominated for two RITAs—Best First Book and Best Romantic Suspense. So clearly, a segment of readers thought it was romantic suspense. And that made sense, too.

Then PRIME TIME won the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery. A reviewer called it ”the perfect combination of mystery and romance.”  And FACE TIME was a Booksense notable book.

And then we got the call—MIRA wanted to re-issue those books, and continue the series. Which, as you know, was so unusual—and such a vote of confidence. A great moment in my publishing life.  There was really no elaborate discussion (with me at least!) about how they’d be branded. And you’ll see that on the outside of the MIRA books, it says “A Charlotte McNally Novel”  and on the inside it’s called “a mystery.” Again, fine with me.

I was asked what I wanted the covers to be—and I said monochromatic, and cool, and clearly a series. And that’s just what happened. 

But now, after several years in publishing–world, I finally now see the critical importance of how a book is branded. I get emails from readers, saying things like ”I found PRIME TIME in the romance section of the bookstore, FACE TIME in mystery, and AIR TIME in new fiction. What’s up with that?”

So yeah, what’s up with that. And are mystery readers put off by the faint scent of romance? Are romance readers put off by the mystery-puzzle?  Ah, I wish I knew.

But was it Sandra Brown? (Sarah, do you know?) [Sarah: Eep! I don’t!] who said she doesn’t think of her books as romance or suspense or mystery—they’re just good stories. So I’m with her. It just might make them tough to find.

Has the switch from focusing on romantic elements to mystery elements changed the way you’ve branded yourself?

Hank: Nope. Not one bit. Well, okay, maybe. But it was the other way. From the beginning, I thought of myself purely as a mystery author. No idea about romance. But in learning about the romance writers world, I was introduced to an amazingly talented group of people,  who, to my delight, seemed to love the books. So now I’m living, happily, in both realms. 

I’m just as likely to appear and speak at a romance convention as a mystery convention…and you’ll also see me hanging out with the thriller writers.  As I’ve said for the past 30 years in my role as a TV journalist, I’m always just looking for a great story to tell. And that’s the same, no matter what you call it.


Thank you, Hank, for answering my questions in such detail. So, which cover set speaks to you? I like the redesigned ones better, as they more clearly communicate the mystery element, and the badassery of the heroine. They are sleek and very woman-centric, but not patronizing visually. What about you?

If you’re curious, Hank Phillippi Ryan’s series is available all over the place. Here, have some links:

Prime Time:

Amazon | Book Depository | Powell’s

Face Time

Amazon | Book Depository | Powell’s

Air Time

Amazon | Book Depository | Powell’s

Drive Time

AllRomanceeBooks | Amazon | Powell’s | Book Depository

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General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    Kim says:

    Thanks, Sarah and Hank, for the interview!

    I prefer No. 2, Face Time, as it reminds me of a college friend who used her mirror at a bar to flirt with a cute boy!

    Branding a cover makes it easier for a reader to remember the series (and find it on the bookshelves).  I’m a Mathematician by training, so branding a cover fulfils my need for symmetry, which has nothing to do with the book. However, Hank’s books have created positive buzz to the point that readers will seek out her books no matter the cover.

    Different covers guarantees that Hank will be back on Smart Bitches when a readers asks in the future, “Do you remember the book cover with a silhouette, handcuffs, and an awards statue?”

  2. 2
    Laura (in PA) says:

    I have Prime Time and Face Time in the original covers, and I like them. I like the new ones too, but I did enjoy the glam aspect of the originals.

    Love, love, love these books, and Hank. So glad to see this here! Hi, Hank!

    wv: born64 – creepy! how did it know?

  3. 3
    DS says:

    I doubt if I would have given the book with the first covers a second look, but the second covers are also pretty generic.  The first two covers look like they may be comedies and I’m very picky about humorous books.  I would be more likely to pick up one with the second set of covers.  In fact from the sample I read there is a good chance I will pick one up. 

    You might want to also check out J. A. Konrath’s blog http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/ because under the title Understanding Kindle Bestsellers, he has been doing an experiment with asking visitors about his covers and blurbs. Also (very interesting) giving information about the number of copies of each book book sold in Amazon’s Kindle store.

  4. 4
    scribblingirl says:

    IMHO, the second covers work for me..it’s not a “fluff” cover (my opinion so no flames please :)) and i would rather a mystery novel look like a mystery novel..i am more inclined to check them out now..

  5. 5
    rednikki says:

    Another person to talk to on this issue is Linnea Sinclair. Her books covers originally pitched her books as science fantasy with strong women, but they’ve had a cover redesign that both ties them together and pitches them as romances.

    I prefer Ryan’s new covers. Not because of the presence or absence of romance – I just think it’s slick graphic design.

  6. 6

    Ooh, I get to put on my designer hat!

    When I look at the first two I think, “Here’s a book in which a woman will go shopping and fall and love, and bumble her way through a mystery along the way.”

    The rebranded set make me think, “Here’s a book where somebody’s definitely going to get murdered or at least kidnapped, and a bad-ass bitch will save the day. And maybe get laid along the way.”

    I’m super-familiar with these covers. They’re all over the Boston subway and commuter rail trains, often with Hank’s smiling face, greeting me as I board. I probably won’t ever read them, simply because—lovely as the covers are—I tune out when I see them because I don’t read hard-hitting mystery, suspense, or thriller, and they very effectively communicate that vibe. I’d pass them by just like I would a Patterson or a Grisham. (I wouldn’t have read the books with the first two designs, either, as they scream chick- or hen-lit to me and that genre makes my skin crawl.)

    Mostly when I see the new covers I think, “Oh, Hank Phillippi Ryan! She was that nice woman with the cool jewelry who struck up a conversation with me at my very first romance conference, and was very nice about the fact that I had no idea who she was, even though I probably should have.”

    Oh snap, there’s my Prime Time swag chapstick, staring at me from my paperclip dish, right now! Kudos to the new design team—I can’t seem to escape the series, so who knows, maybe one day I’ll get the cajones together and read the books.

  7. 7
    Beki says:

    While I’m a lover of women’s fiction and would have read the books with the original covers had I ever seen them, I’m more interested to know they are actually mysteries and wouldn’t be confused by their plots upon review of the newer covers. 

    Whatever, whatever.  As an author, people looking for your book in every section of the store?  That’s a fine problem to have.  I hope one day to have it too!  I’m going to check these out!

  8. 8
    Susan Shay says:

    I’m not a romance reader or a mystery reader. I’m just a reader. Give me a great story and I’ll eat it up. Looking forward to finding yours, Hank!
    Susan

  9. 9

    I think the rebranded covers are brilliant.  I’ve read the first three—mine have the new covers—and now that I’ve seen the original ones, I have to say that, in my opinion, those really really misrepresent what’s between the covers. Which is smart, taut writing with great plot. Not at all chick-lit-y, which I think the originals suggested.

    I love this series.

  10. 10
    Rita says:

    I love the new covers…much more slick, sexy and befitting of the series (which btw rocks).

    As a Boston native I knew exactly who Hank was when I met her at my first romance conference last year.  Of course, I was completely intimidated—- until she struck up a conversation and I realized she was incredibly nice and generous with her time.  When I walked away she gave me her card and said I should reach out to her if I ever needed help.  The funny thing was, she seemed to really mean it. 

    Oh, and Sarah’s right about the red lipstick!  Hank must have a secret that she picked up as a reporter because it even stayed perfect during lunch.

  11. 11
    Kristina says:

    @Kim, first post

    THANK YOU!  I thought I was the only wacko out there that demanded symmetry in all things.  I definitly believe in branding the covers of book series.  hate hate hate when they change the design mid way through.  For example.  I have all of the Left Behind Series in hard cover.  EXCEPT the first two.  While the cover artwork is similar in all of them the first two books’ hard cover versions are about an inch and half shorter than the other 10 or so.  I’m trolling ebay and used bookstores all over for the 9 inch version.  not the 7.

    (*tee hee* aren’t we all though?)

  12. 12
    Miri says:

    Yea! New author to check out. Just added all of Hank’s stuff to my Goodreads shelf.
    Just so you know, when I first looked them up they were displayed with the old covers. I switched to the new covers. They are much “cooler” less chick-lit.

  13. 13

    Thanks, Kim! I do have a stash of the books with “old” covers at home…it’s my first book, after all, and no matter what’s on the cover, there’s something wonderfully special about that.

    Laura in PA—Aw, hey, wonderful to see you, too. Yes, the originals were glam—hilariously,  the “award” on the cover that’s supposed to be an Emmy doesn’t look remotely like an Emmy. I always wondered if there were a problem with rights or something..and they just thought, oh, no one will care.

    And thanks, DS. Let me know what you think! (And I will check out that blog..)

  14. 14

    Thanks, scribblingirl! I hope you will check them out—and let me know what you think.

    Rednikki—yes, Linnea is wonderful. Do you know what she thinks about the rebranding?

    And Cara! Thanks so much for the wonderful memory. Lovely.

    Just thinking—do you think they would have chosen that same plain red cover if Catcher in the Rye were published today?
    Huh. And now it’s just—iconic.

  15. 15
    Silver James says:

    This series absolutely rocks! Romance or mystery? Doesn’t matter. These stories suck you in and keep you up late reading. I like the rebranding, personally. The covers would stand out in the romance section and feel right at home in the mystery/thriller section.

    Hank, I can’t wait to read DRIVE TIME!

    heh! Spam word: lived79—Yes, if I live to 79, I will still have these books on my keeper shelf!

  16. 16
    Kristin says:

    I’m going to go buy these books ASAP.  I checked my library and they only have Air Time so I’ll have to buy (hehehe, any good excuse is welcome) these books.

  17. 17

    My first mystery, Mark of the Lion, had a pretty cover but it was more evocative of a soft, old-time tale rather than a shape-shifting African witchcraft murder. The subsequent books have changed to a more “adventurous” theme. Still long for one with fangs and blood.

  18. 18

    Fangs and blood! always good..

    Kristin and MIri and SIlver—whoo! Thank you so much. Love it. (Kristin (and anyone!), email me at hryan at whdh dot com and I will tell you where to get free shipping!)

  19. 19

    Beki,  you’re so right..that is a nice problem to have.. :-)

    Susan, thanks!  Let me know if you have trouble finding them!

  20. 20
    Ridley says:

    I keep meaning to pick this series up, since I’m a wicked townie and have seen Hank Philippi Ryan on tv here since I was but a snotty-nosed kid.

    Have to say I much prefer the reissues’ covers. The originals scream “fluffy chick lit” and those sort of books set my teeth on edge. The reissues communicate the mystery angle much more effectively.

  21. 21
    PetiteJ says:

    Good, another author to pick up and read.  And have I mentioned that I’m always looking for a good series to sink into?

    I prefer the first covers but agree a series benefits from having a cover theme.  The first covers remind me of cross between Agatha Christie-type books: glamorous, light-hearted, and romantic.  The second covers promise something darker.  And I wonder if there are only so many colors that can be used. 

    As to what would appeal from a glance, it would depend on my mood of what I wanted to read at that time.  My opinion will probably change after I’ve read the books.  Then I will be able to see if the I judged the book correctly by its cover.

  22. 22

    Cara said: “The rebranded set make me think, “Here’s a book where somebody’s definitely going to get murdered or at least kidnapped, and a bad-ass bitch will save the day. And maybe get laid along the way.””

    Cara for the win, imho, and a shout out to Hank for the awesome reads. Congrats on the Agatha nom!!

  23. 23

    Ridley,thank you!  Yeah, I’ve been on TV here in Boston since—19muffle muffle…

    PetiteJ, that’s a lovely way to think about those early covers. Really interesting to hear that perspective, and it makes me like them all the more.  Someday, someday, I will tell you about the cover that never was. But that’s another story for another day. With wine.

  24. 24

    Jessica! Thank you so much…yes, I am thrilled about the Agatha nominations.

    Just so you know, if you don’t—Jessica Andersen is in the running for coolest person on the planet. Click on her website. See what I mean?

  25. 25

    Hank,
    I read and loved Prime Time. The cover wouldn’t have mattered either way, b/c you sent me a signed copy for free—very cool, btw—but IMO, the 2nd cover goes w/the content much better than the 1st. :) Free or not, I wouldn’t have kept reading if I didn’t like what was between the pages, keep meaning to read the others.
    On the writing side of things, I wish I hadn’t known about the differences b/t romance & mystery when I started writing. Screwed me all up!  Here’s hoping for another Agatha win!

  26. 26

    Love your stuff, Hank! And I like both cover styles, though I can see how Round 2 hits the mark a little better.

  27. 27

    Jessica, that’s the other side of the coin, right?  I had NO idea, and that made it difficult, too. So, I guess, each of us just does what we can. And we try to learn (and unlearn!) along the way. Thank you for the kind words!

  28. 28

    Kristan! (One of the best in the business…and I see your wonderful books as movies every time…!)

    Thanks so much..and hope all is well with you! Congratulations on all your success…

  29. 29

    Kristan—Too funny you should comment on a post about book covers. I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember the name of it now, but not too long ago I picked up one of your books b/c of the cute Basset Hound on the cover—looked just mine.
    Hank—you’re right, and what you’ve done is pretty fantastic. ;)

  30. 30
    Rachel says:

    The cover of a book is so important, isn’t it? I tend to like my romance novels as straight-up romance, not romantic suspense, so I get disconcerted if the cover is misleading – I feel like I’m being tricked!

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